Tuesday, September 23, 2014

She lay waiting but which is it?

"Finding the first Vessel will no doubt provide the momentum- or wind in our sails-necessary to locate it's sister ship and find out even more about what happened to the Franklin Expedition's crew," stated Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

The HMS Terror and the HMS Erebus left England in 1845, led by British captain Sir John Franklin and were headed for the Northwest Passage.  They were reported missing in 1846 after they both became stranded in the Arctic ice. The ships remained trapped in the Canadian Arctic for more than a year and by 1848, the surviving crew members abandoned the ships and headed for dry land.  None of the 130 crew members survived and people have been trying to discover what happened for decades.

On September 7 2014, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced that one of the doomed ships from Franklin's expedition has been discovered by a remote controlled underwater vehicle.  The ship is so well preserved that it was easy to identify her as one of the two used on the expedition.  The masts are sheared off but that was probably caused by the ice moving above the ship after it sank but most of the decking is still in place.  They expect that the contents of the ship will be in a similar condition and that should help identify which of the two ships it is.

Captain Sir John Franklin had already gone on three arctic expeditions previously and this last trip at age 59 was meant to complete the mapping of the Northwest Passage.  It was a continuation of the search by Europeans to find a quicker route from Europe to Asia and the area Franklin was to explore and map was the last in the Canadian Arctic.

The HMS Terror and HMS Erebus had been specially fitted for the voyage with reinforced beams and iron plates on the bows, steam engines, and internal steam heating system, 1,000 books in it's libraries and over 8,000 tins of preserved foods.  The provisions taken aboard would have lasted three years for the crew but could have been stretched to last longer if needed.  It was found later that the job of tinning the food had been rushed and many of the cans had been poorly soldered.

The ships set off from Greenhithe England on May 19 1845 headed for Greenland.  The last contact with the ships was in July 1845 when the ships Enterprise and Prince of Wales spotted them in Baffin Bay waiting for better weather to cross to Lancaster Sound.  Franklin's expedition had two of the largest, strongest and well provisioned ships to make this journey.  Both ships became stuck in the ice off King William Island in September 1846 and according to written documents, Franklin died on June 11 1847.

The crew wintered over on King William Island from 1846-1847 and 1847-1848 during which time almost 25 of them had died.  The remaining crew members had decided to walk to the Back River on the Canadian mainland in April of 1848.  They would all die along the way, most of them on the island and the rest on the mainland, hundreds of miles from any  European civilization.

The first search parties were organized and sent out in 1848 but they failed to find neither the ships or any evidence of what had happened to the crew.  In 1850, 2 American ships and 11 British ships were searching the waters in the Canadian Arctic.  The first evidence of what had happened to the crew were discovered on the east coast of Beechey Island where the remnants of the 1845-46 winter camp were found as well as the graves of John Shaw Torrington, William Braine and John Hartnell.  There were no messages or notes found at the site though to give searchers any ideas as to where to look for the rest of the crew.

John Torrington

John Torrington

William Braine

In 1854, John Rae was surveying in Boothia Peninsula and encountered Inuit tribesmen who told a tale of a group of 30-40 white men who had starved to death near the Back River.  They added that the men had turned to cannibalism before they had all perished.  They showed Rae many objects including silver spoons and forks that could be identified as belonging to crew of the Terror and Erebus.

Britain declared that the entire crew was dead in 1854 and planned no further official searches for the men.  In 1859 though, two notes were found in a rock cairn that detailed some of what the crew had gone through.  They detailed what had happened early in the expedition after they had become trapped in the ice as well as their plan to abandon the ships. There was also the remains of one of the wooden whaleboat that held chocolates, books and the skeletons of two of the crew.  Between 1859 and 1869 various expeditions discovered bones and other artifacts from the crew but no survivors.

The story of what had happened to the crew slowly unfolded over the decades with advances in technology.  It is believed that they left the ships the first winter and headed south to hunt.  Franklin had left a note behind stating that all was well but he was dead about a month later.  They had returned the area of the ships at least once to update the note with the number of men who had died.

The crew was growing sicker by the day from scurvy, tuberculosis and lead poisoning and they were doomed by the time they decided to abandon the ships in 1848.  Remains of some of the crew were found in two other locations over the years but many have never been found.  There is ample evidence that the crew suffered from lead poisoning throughout the voyage and that was first attributed to the lead that had contaminated the tinned food.  It is now believed that it may have been the lead piping that was part of the water heating assembly that contributed the large amount of lead that was found in the crew members.  The task of finding the ships would never be an easy task since the exact location of them is not known.  They also were trapped for two years in ice that was slowly moving south in a vast body of water.

Many have searched at times over the next century for what may have become of the crew of Franklin's expedition but it was not until 2008 that Canada mounted another comprehensive search for the ships and crew.  The Northwest Passage has opened up due to the melting of polar ice and Canada was seeking to establish it's sovereignty of those disputed waters and the route that Franklin had been searching for.  For years, they came back empty handed.

This year the team that has been surveying as well as looking for the wrecks were prevented from going where they had planned on working because of the heavy ice flow.  They were forced to spend more time south of the Victoria Strait, the area where early Inuit reports had described a large ghost ship drifting south on the ice.  The area is far from what had been stated on the 1847 note but time has now proven the tales from decades ago were very correct.

Fate put two archaeologists working for the Nuvamut government on a helicopter bound for an isolated island while they were waiting to get to what was believed to be better areas for the wreck to lie.  The chopper pilot, Andrew Stirling also had an interest in artifacts so he kept his eyes glued to the ground while he walked the perimeter of the barren island.  Douglas Stenton, 61 and  Robert Park, 57 set about examining what appeared to be a tent ring, which is a small circle of rocks that the Inuit would build a shelter in.

Stirling spotted a piece of iron that did not look as though it belonged with the landscape and called Park and Stenton over.  They both knew that it was an artifact that they had never seen before.  Stenton remarked that he wished that he could see the Royal Navy's mark of a broad arrow on the piece because then they would know they were on the right track.  He moved the piece in his hand and found two arrows stamped into the iron along with the number 12.  They both knew then that they had found what they believed was a Royal navy fitting.

Further along the beach Stirling found several pieces of weather wood with nails protruding from them.  His first guess was that he had found the remains of a wooden cask but the archaeologists explained to him that they believed the pieces fit together to form a hawse plug.  It would have been used to close the hole that the anchor chain ran through and prevent water from entering the hold.  The large metal, tuning fork shaped piece of iron was most likely a davit used to lower one of the several boats that the ships had carried.

The davit would have been of little use to the Inuit and probably has been on the island from the time of the expedition.  it proved that the Inuit had been telling the truth about seeing a ship locked in ice in that area after the loss of Franklin and his men.  They quickly had a boat in the water using a side scanning sonar to search for the wreck nearby.  It did not take long for them to have a hit that was large enough to be a ship show up on the laptop screen.  They knew that they had found one of Franklin's lost ships.

The next step was to try and get a remote controlled vehicle in the water and use it to get photos of their find.  The weather was not being kind to them but they hoped to get the ROV into the water at least once to confirm their hopes.  They managed to only get the ROV into the water for 40 minutes but that was enough to confirm the find.

They had found the sunken ship, sitting upright on the seabed and in very good condition.  The three masts were missing and it was felt that they had probably been sliced off by ice flows.  There was much of the deck planking still intact and a lot of debris consisting of the mast supports.  The length of the ship and the two cannons that were spotted on film  confirmed that it had to be one of Franklin's lost ships.

There are plans underway for more exploration of the wreck for next year and it is hoped that the ship can be identified then.  The actual site of the wreck is being kept vague to prevent looting or damage to the site before it can be fully explored.  it is truly amazing that a simple twist of fate in the Arctic weather led the searchers to this historic find.  Now that they have found one of the ships, it is hoped that the search area for the second ship can be more accurately estimated.  I am sure that many worldwide are going to be closely watching the discoveries that a wreck in such good shape will reveal about Franklin's fatal exploration of the Arctic waters in Canada.






Update Oct 5 2014:

Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced to the Canadian House of Commons that they have indeed identified the wreck they discovered as the HMS Erebus.  The Erebus was the ship that Franklin had commanded the expedition from and is believed to have died on as well.

Parks Canada had completed at least seven dives to the wreck with two man teams to measure and record artifacts.  This information as well as sonar measurements and high resolution photos and video helped in determining which of the ships she actually is.

The divers were able to drop below decks in some areas and look at the interior of the ship.  They did not penetrate deeply into the interior but were able to view the ship's mess and various interior structures that aided in the identification.  The Erebus and the Terror had various differences in their structures beginning with their differing lengths of hulls.  The Erebus was launched in 1826 and after serving in the Mediterranean, she was outfitted for polar waters.  She is about 13 years younger than the Terror and both had served as Navy bomb vessels.  The Erebus was outfitted with ten cannons and motors near the front of the ship.

It will be exciting to see what else will be found on future dives of the wreck.  The small window offered by the weather at the wreck site has closed but next year will bring new opportunities........ to dive this wreck and to continue the search for the HMS Terror.




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